Gay marriage licenses draw protesters to Montco

Protesters, most aligned with the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania, hold a "pray-in" at the Register of Wills' Office in Norristown. Protesters include Patrick Stanton (second from left) and Victoria Naoe (right).
Protesters, most aligned with the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania, hold a "pray-in" at the Register of Wills' Office in Norristown. Protesters include Patrick Stanton (second from left) and Victoria Naoe (right). (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 28, 2013

Not many people get their marriage licenses with a prayer group protesting a few feet away.

But that's what happened to Lynn Zeitlin and Gabriela Assagioli on Friday in Norristown.

The couple, from Penn Valley, have been together for several years and had put on a wedding ceremony in the past, but they came to the Register of Wills' Office on Friday to obtain a Montgomery County marriage license. Even though same-sex marriage is not legal in Pennsylvania, D. Bruce Hanes, the register of wills, has allowed his office to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples since Wednesday.

As of Friday afternoon, more than 25 licenses had been granted to same-sex couples, according to Frank Custer, the county communications director, including the one for Zeitlin and Assagioli.

Issuance of those licenses drew the protesters to the typically uneventful office.

Thirteen protesters, most aligned with the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania, entered the office lobby just after noon, several carrying signs with phrases including "Marriage: One Man. One Woman" and "Children Need a Mom and Dad."

Michael McMonagle, the coalition's president, distributed sheets of paper to office employees that contained descriptions of several crimes he said office employees are committing by issuing the licenses, such as obstructing the administration of law, or tampering with public records. He and several other protesters delivered remarks denouncing gay marriage, and the group recited prayers in unison for about a half-hour.

"You put yourselves above state law," McMonagle said to office employees, adding that Hanes' decision was akin to tyranny.

Around 12:40 p.m., the group headed across the street to the courthouse, hoping to meet with District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, who they say should charge Hanes with the misdemeanor crimes listed on McMonagle's flier. A receptionist told McMonagle that no one was available to meet the group. On Thursday, Ferman issued a statement saying she did not plan to take action against Hanes.

"Based upon the current law of Pennsylvania, a same-sex marriage license is not legally valid. However, the remedy for issuing an invalid marriage license does not include intervention by the Office of the District Attorney," Ferman wrote.

McMonagle, who said he had been calling Ferman since Wednesday to no response, said it was "symptomatic" of her office to ignore the group's request to meet Friday, but vowed that he would start looking into ways to compel her office to act.

"We're appealing to the district attorney," he said. "Why won't she enforce state law?"

The protest appeared not to bother Hanes. He said McMonagle was "free to say whatever he wants to say."

Hanes said it was up to Ferman to decide whether his office was breaking the law. He said he had not heard from her office, or the state Attorney General's Office, or Gov. Corbett's office.

"For me, everything's been positive," he said.

The hubbub in the office Friday did not bother Zeitlin and Assagioli, either.

"They're allowed to protest," Assagioli said. "They're American."

As she and Zeitlin then turned to receive their license, she looked toward the issuer with a smile.

"You guys are having a field day, aren't you?" Assagioli said.


Contact Chris Palmer, 609-217-8305, cpalmer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @cs_palmer

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